February 2006

First shared in February 2006, while on a 12-month assignment in Niamey, Niger, working in response to the 2005-6 famine in that country.

An introduction to the Nigerien Nostalgia series.

As always, living and working in Africa is a swirling series of irreconcilable dichotomies; a strange blend of privelage and want, of elation and exhaustion, of adrenaline and bitterness. I have found this before during my shorter visits, but living in one of the world’s very poorest countries, one of the most dysfunctional, frustrating, fascinating and enchanting places I have come across, I find these feelings enhanced and confused. On the one hand the lifestyle is almost bewitching, even though the physical conditions in which we live here are far lower than we take for granted back home. We don’t have a cinema, yet stealing the data projector from the office and watching a DVD projected from a laptop on the living-room wall becomes a treat we look forward to all week. Our favourite restaurants here have no roof overhead and charge just a dollar a beer, yet we boast about them to visitors as we incorporate them into our weekly routine.

The very fact that I can borrow a car from the office catapaults me into the most privelaged minority in Niamey, where small boys in rags with little metal bowls beg at my open window at the stoplights, and I have to negotiate donkey-drawn carts as I drive down to the hotel by the river for my weekly swim on Sunday afternoon. The facilities we take for granted in the west here throw the utter paucity of the country into sharp relief. My wage in Australia, for somebody with a masters degree from a good university, is at best average, but here I might as well be a billionaire and commute to work in a helicopter as far as most of the people I meet on the street are concerned. It is disconcerting how quickly you come to terms with this viewpoint, but I suppose there is not really any other way to function here. This is my normalcy.

And yet my day to day existence at the office is one of immense frustration and increasing despair at being stuck in what can only be described as a struggling bureaucracy. I feel that I spend my days not moving things forward, only trying to solve problem after problem that is thrust my way. Administration here runs like sticky glue, bogging down every effort to move things forward. My vehicles run out of fuel in the field and my staff are stuck at their base, not because the fuel station has run out of fuel (usually- though it happens in Tillaberi like that sometimes) but because the right internal form has not been filled out in triplicate, signed, stamped, and sent to at least four different administrators to authorise the issue of fuel vouchers. This week, I spent two consecutive nights up until one and two in the morning in the office, trying to reconcile financial figures to present a funding forecast to the World Vision partnership. On the third day I went in to finalise my work and share it with the finance folk, only to discover that I had been given the wrong acquittals three days earlier. When I, in livid, softly-spoken anger, explained to those responsible exactly how much time I had spent working on figures that would now have to be redone from scratch because of their oversight, I received an ‘oh, sorry,’ and was sent about my business.

There are weeks I fantasize about drafting a dramatic letter of resignation, of storming out of the office with slamming doors and great wailing and gnashing of teeth in my wake. So far I have held the temptation at bay. What is most heartbreaking about the whole situation is that I feel I am contributing nothing. A voice in the back of my head tells me, ‘do it for the children’, and I remind myself that the program I am trying to manage is still feeding nearly 10,000 malnourished kids around the country. Then another voice kicks in and coolly observes that really I’m just pouring all my effort into a system that takes my work and distills it into a condensed form, which is then brought back up to my office four weeks later with a little note telling me that what I asked for couldn’t be done because it didn’t comply with regulation 478 in the code of good paper filing. Or something like that.

And yet although I cannot explain my position, I truly love living here, and when I leave, it will hurt. And I will have been back in Australia for just 2 months, and I will want to be back in Africa, and I know it will call me until it aches. Although I have always wanted to be ‘in Africa’ on some level, it has taken me quite by surprise how much I have fallen in love with the continent. I can’t wait to leave this office and all its ridiculous, petty, political headaches. And I know the moment I do, I will want to come back- maybe not to this office, but to another one instead, where the headaches will be of a different variety, maybe (hopefully) even a different intensity, but still, simply, headaches.

The dichotomy reigns.

Life, despite seeming to revolve round foolishly long hours in the office (we usually work 10-12 hour days and 6-day weeks, and it is uncommon for us to leave the office before 7.30 at night), is also very rich. I think this is born partly because work is so intense that non-work has to have some level of intensity to match that, and I understand why relief workers globally are notorious for substance abuse, dangerous behaviour and sexual promiscuity. Partly too it is the sheer sensory overload of being surrounded daily by a place that, while increasingly familiar, is still so utterly foreign to everything one knows in the west that there is no way it can ever be fully reconciled or ignored.

Over the next couple of weeks I’ll share with you just a smattering of my experiences over the last 2 months since I last wrote. I can’t begin to capture or share everything I’ve been through, but even just for myself I want to have them written down, and hope you can enjoy them a little with me.

Watch this space for more stories…

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